Researchers Adelina Millet and Lluís Feliu, members of the Institute of Ancient Near East Studies (IPOA) of the University of Barcelona, have published a new edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh , the oldest literary epic and a classic in universal literature. Recent archaeological findings led to an update of the Epic, of which a first edition was published in Catalan in 2007. In this new edition, revised and expanded, the translators have done an excellent philological job, including all the tablets of the epic discovered to date, directly translated from Akkadian to Catalan.
We spoke to them to find out about the details of this important work.
This is the first known literary work. Do you think there have been earlier ones?
We know about literary works written in Sumerian and Akkadian from ancient Mesopotamia which are contemporary with or have been written earlier than the Epic of Gilgamesh, but this is the first extant poem that we know of. We estimate that, in its original form, it should have about 3,000 verses. Even in ancient times, it spread far beyond physical and cultural frontiers, and it had translations into other ancient languages, such as Hittite and Hurrian.
Is epic the original literary form?
"Epic" is a term we inherited from Ancient Greek and which has conditioned, in part, the later literary tradition. Gilgamesh is an earlier poem, some motifs are similar to the ones we find in the Greek epic, but if we identify the Epic of Gilgamesh as an epic, it has to do with tradition rather than a formal or thematic issue that ties it with the classical epic tradition. What we can confirm is that poetry is the first literary form that we know of. Perhaps the techniques used by ancient Sumerians and Akkadians to make poetry do not feel close to us, but it is certain that this literature is expressed in a poetic form.
What was society like when this epic was composed?
It was a very diverse society in terms of the linguistic origins of the population. But this diversity is not always reflected on literary texts, which in general, seem to have a great homogeneity and consensus, since they kept the school curricula for almost 3,000 years. This literature —if we focus on literature— would circulate in an oral format mostly, although it had a written format too (but texts were not written to be read by most people, since there was a relatively low percentage of people who knew how to read and write. Gilgamesh and the other literary texts reached the people because there were reciters and bards who told and performed the stories in public. Therefore, we should bear in mind that this kind of literature had a strong oral element, at least originally. The texts were written for archival purposes, or to preserve knowledge, specially among kings, since it was a sign of greatness. Many copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh and other literary texts are preserved in copies from the personal archives of the scribes who taught their disciples.
How do we have to read a work that was written 4,000 years ago?
As if it came out today. What makes the Epic of Gilgamesh modern and close to us are the universal topics it touches on: friendship, sex, anger, death. These are topics that, as humans, strike us. For all these reasons, despite the archaic style of the poem, the story is close to us.
However, the western audience already knows some of the stories and situations we find, since they appear on the Bible, such as the flood or the greatness of Babylon.
Tell us about Akkadian, the language the poem was written in.
Akkadian is the oldest known representative of the family of languages we call Semitic. It is also the only representative of the East Semitic subfamily. Akkadian is the relative of the well-known ancient and modern languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, South Arabian, Ethipoic, Ge’ez (among others).
What does this poem tell us?
The poem narrates the adventures and misfortune of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. We can divide the narration into two parts. The first part shows how Gilgamesh is seen as a despotic king who, after fighting Enkidu, his antagonist, decides to go on a hunt for the ogre Humbaba, the guardian of the far cedar forest, with Enkidu, who is already his friend. After being victorious, and due to the intervention of the goddess Ishtar, the gods decide Enkidu has to die. Once Enkidu dies, the powerful Gilgamesh realises he is a mortal too and rebels against the evidence. After this, the story takes an existential turn and the hero begins a quest for immortality. After a long journey and many adventures, reality takes over and Gilgamesh becomes aware of his immortality and decies to go back to Uruk, his hometown.
What has been its influence on the history of literature?
His influence has been very small. With the disappearance of cuneiform writing in the 1st century AD, the trace of Gilgamesh and his adventures disappeared, although an echo of the poem appears in some of the tales in The Arabian Nights and some other eastern texts. In 1872, George Smith deciphered one of the tablets that formed the standard recension of the poem. We can say that it is at that point that the "renaissance" of Gilgamesh began, and it is only from that moment that the poem began to be known in Western literary circles. During the 20th century oratorios have been composed, theatrical adaptations have been made, novels have been written or poems dedicated to or inspired by the ancient Sumerian hero.
You published a first translation into Catalan in 2007. What will we find in this new edition?
In these fifteen years since the first edition was published, new fragments of the Epic have been identified. Some of these fragments were already in museums and collections, but more recently new texts have appeared from Iraq. Most of these new fragments do not substantially change the content or the plot of the story, but they do fill in some broken passages. In one case, moreover, the location of a known passage has been changed, modifying the content of the tablets concerned. In another case, these new contributions have made it possible to find the beginning of one of the tablets, which was broken. In addition, we have decided to make some changes in the translation, as a result of the reflections and readings that we have been making; this new edition has also offered us the possibility of correcting the errors detected in the text.
Why have you decided to offer a standard translation and a poetic one?
Generally, given the current knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian literature, still limited in some cases, cuneiformists prefer to make standard translations, more or less literal and in prose. But since the original is in poetic form, making a translation that is also in poetic form in the target language also makes sense. Thus, we decided that offering both versions in the same volume could add a value that other translations lack. In this way, the reader will be able to compare the two versions and establish a dialogue between them.
Adelina Millet holds a degree in Semitic Philology and a master’s degree in Assyriology from the University of Barcelona, and a PhD in Letters from the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne University (Paris). She is currently a lecturer in the Department of Classical, Romance and Semitic Philology in the Faculty of Philology and Communication at the University of Barcelona. She has taught Hebrew, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Akkadian; biblical literature and comparative literature at the degree in Arabic and Hebrew Studies, and also Akkadian literature at the master’s degree in Ancient Cultures and Languages at the University of Barcelona. He directs the collection Barcino. Monographica Orientalia (BMO) and the Assyriological journal Aula Orientalis . She is also the academic secretary of the Institute of the Ancient Near East (IPOA) at the University of Barcelona.
Lluís Feliu holds a PhD in History from the University of Barcelona and a master’s degree in Oriental Studies (specialising in Assyriology) from the Ancient Near East Institute of the UB. A specialist in the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, he has published and edited several volumes on this subject, including The God Dagan in Bronze Age Syria (2003), El Poema Babilònic de la Creació i altres cosmogonies menors (2004, with Adelina Millet), Time and History in the Ancient Near East (2013), Enuma eli¨ y otros relatos babilónicos de la Creación (2021, with Adelina Millet).